The English and their Aversion to Foreign Languages. Chris Shute.

The English and their Aversion to Foreign Languages

I have been a teacher of Modern Languages for most of my adult life. During that time I have met, perhaps, half a dozen students who gave evidence of having acquired  a serious grasp of French, not only as a result of attending my classes, but also anyone else’s. The attempt to equip a generation of young people with an effective grasp of at least one modern language has been a resounding failure, and it will continue to be so for reasons which have nothing to do with the supposed English inability to learn foreign languages.

The English are no more untalented than any other nation for the acquisition of languages not their own. It is simply that they have no reason for doing so. They already possess the language which has become the most widely used in the world. Airline pilots, whatever their native tongue, have to address the Control Tower in it, even if they are flying, say, a Chinese airliner into Beijing airport. Continental young people who want to follow the  worlds of sport, popular music, fashion and films need to be able to understand a fair variety of English vocabulary. Young Dutchmen and Flemings know that their native language can be understood if they travel about a hundred miles from the centre of their territory, whereas if they speak English they can be understood in most countries, even the most remote. English is for most intelligent people a skeleton key allowing access to the riches of modern civilisation. The English did not set out to create a lingua franca, but that is what happened.

I learned French because I wanted to. Ever since the day I heard Charles Trenet sing ‘La Mer’ on the radio, at a time when I was just beginning to learn to speak my own native tongue, I have been intrigued by other landguages. I recount this because I went into teaching, and specifically language teaching assuming that all normal children shared my passionate interest in the different ways in which people spoke and wrote. I was saddened to discover that far being enthusiastic about languages many of my students saw French lessons as a compulsory embarrassment, or an occasion for deliberately distorting the speech-patterns of Johnny Foreigner and his Pentecostal crew. Towards the end of my career it began to dawn on me that, apart from the few like myself, who had an intellectual interest in the structure of another language, my pupils had no good reason for making the effort to learn French.

 The epiphany which led to my radically rethinking my approach to language-teaching came when I met a French Assistante who had a common English name. She explained that she was, in fact , English, and that her family had moved to France when she was ten years old. She had received her secondary education in France and she now spoke and wrote the language as well as any Frenchman. She had not learned it by attending lessons, but by being in a situation where being able to speak French was a necessary social tool. She could not use avoidance strategies to fend off successful learning, like so many of my English students, because her need to learn to speak and write French was directly and unavoidably related to every second of her life. Without those skills she would have been friendless, bored out of her mind, unable to take any part in life outside her home. French wasn’t a ‘subject’ on her timetable: it was as important to her as the air she breathed.

From her I learned that it is pure folly to waste time, money, energy and  training on filling schools with teachers of modern languages who give lessons in those languages to groups of young people who have, in the main, no motive for learning them. What we need is schools like the one attended by the son of my Hebrew teacher, in which all the classes were taught by an English-speaking teacher and a Hebrew-speaking teacher. So the children learned that if they needed help from Mrs. Cohen they had to use one form of words: if their business was with Giveret Kaspi they had to use another. In that way all language was seen as functional and useful for getting anything the children happened to want. There was none of the futility which dogs the average attempt at language teaching, in which all the students know that they already have a perfectly serviceable means of communicating with their teacher, and therefore need an alternative language as much as a hole in their head. 

So it seems to me that we need urgently to stop teaching languages as a ‘subject’, like History or Maths. Ideally, we should set up schools like those that exist in Wales, where children have to speak Welsh, and become proficient in so doing, at the same time as learning to speak English so as to be able to share the life of the wider community. Our assumption is that we could not operate our schools in more than one language because to do so would take too much time away from ‘valuable’, ‘essential’ concerns like Science or CDT. The Welsh manage it, but we on this side of Offa’s Dike seem obsessed with the idea that if we do not teach a little  of everything in  a single language in our schools no child will learn anything valuable. I have observed enough home-based education to know that precisely the opposite is true: it is precisely because we don’t teach them lessons that home-educated children grow into such widely knowledgeable young adults, whilst the schooled majority tend to become narrow-minded and philistine, in spite of the compendious curriculum which is served up to them.

The supreme irony of language teaching is inherent in the way we all learn our first, often called our ‘native’ language. We learn to speak it without the benefit of formal lessons, from instructors who have no formal training in pedagogy or teaching methods. Nevertheless, we all learn the subtle complexities of intonation, accent and choice of words. Imagine, if you will, the situation which would arise if we abandoned the present approach to teaching babies and toddlers to speak the tongue that Shakespeare spoke by the methods adopted by our schools – forty minutes a day, a vocabulary test every week, verb paradigms formally chanted and grammar taught according to an adult conception of what is ‘easy’ and what is ‘difficult’. We would kill our language in a generation! We would reduce our population to a horde of inarticulate, grunting primates, capable at best of ordering a sandwich and, maybe, booking in at a hotel or a campsite, provided thee shopkeeper or the receptionist used the precise words the speaker had learned. This is a diabolical vision, but it is also what emerges from the average secondary language course.

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